Marine Corps First Sgt. Kenneth “Pony” Monell was my mentor. Marine Pfc. Mark Garcia was my friend in Vietnam. Navy Lt. George Griggs was my father and a PT boat skipper in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Many more heroes stand tall alongside them in my heart.
Pony Monell – one outstanding Marine – died a few years ago in Switzerland, where he had settled down during retirement. He was my company gunnery sergeant and first sergeant and my reconnaissance team leader in Vietnam. Most of my combat skills came from Pony’s teaching. I’m walking around today because Pony took care of his troops. The best recon Marine I ever knew could be strict, but he was always fair. And whether kicking me in the can in Vietnam or calling me on the phone from Switzerland some 40 years later, Pony always showed he cared. The man was my hero.
Mark Garcia was special. The young Marine was a gifted artist and a trusted friend. A wall in our home is graced by a wonderful, framed pencil sketch of me, drawn by Mark in Vietnam.
I remember when Mark started walking point on patrol. He was a Filipino American, and he figured that if we stumbled head-on into some bad guys – Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army soldiers – they might be too lax for a moment too long when they saw our young Asian. Sure enough, we walked into an enemy patrol, and their point man hesitated too long, allowing Mark to get the drop on him. After a brief firefight, the Viet Cong troops broke away and escaped into the mountain forest.
We all felt pretty gung-ho that day in the Annamite Mountains. Unfortunately, a few months later in those same highlands, after he moved to another recon team in our company, my friend fell to friendly fire. A 2.75-inch rocket from a Huey gunship killed our fellow gyrene, our hero.
George Griggs was my pop and an excellent role model. He was an attorney at law, known throughout southwestern Illinois for his honesty and integrity. A humble man, he always said he was just a country lawyer.
During World War II, my father’s PT boat squadron operated out of New Guinea and the Philippines. His South Pacific experience was that of tranquil, scenic patrols interrupted by combat. He seldom talked about his battles, but when I was a kid, I managed to drag a few war stories out of the old man.
In between the telling of those few thrilling tales, George Griggs taught me how to find morel mushrooms in the forest, how to tune a Triumph motorcycle in our garage and how to place honesty and honor foremost in life. When my dad died of a heart attack, I was devastated. He was more than just a country lawyer. He was my hero.
Many of my heroes died on Sunday, Oct. 23, 1983, when we lost 241 men in Beirut, Lebanon. Mostly Marines, along with some sailors and a few soldiers, they had been tasked with an impossible mission – to serve as peacekeepers in a city nearly destroyed, torn by strife, fought over by many forces and factions: the Israelis, Syrians, Maronite Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and the Druze, an offshoot Muslim sect. And Hezbollah, or the Party of God.
The 24th Marine Amphibious Unit made up most of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force in Beirut, accompanied by British, Italian and French troops. Battalion Landing Team 1/8 – consisting of 1st Battalion, 8thMarines and its support units – was the fighting nucleus of the amphibious unit. The battalion landing team headquarters element took up housekeeping in a large building that provided many offices and the
sleeping quarters for cooks, clerks and numerous support troops, such as recon Marines and TOW missile specialists. The recon and TOW troops conducted most of the mobile patrols, and I felt safe when on the streets of Beirut with them. I felt secure, too, with the infantry Marines on foot patrols. At the BLT headquarters, I enjoyed good chow thanks to the cooks, bakers and mess-hall Marines. I got to know many of the troops of the 24th
Marine Amphibious Unit by name, and I cherish the times I shared with them before I left at the end of the summer to return to my cushy job in Los Angeles.
Fifty-five days after my departure from Beirut, a young Lebanese man, trained and directed by Hezbollah, drove a Mercedes truck full of explosives into 1/8’s headquarters and barracks building. The tremendous force of the explosion destroyed the structure and 241 lives. The Marines and their fellow servicemen who were attacked at 6 a.m. that morning in Beirut were massacred in their sleep. They were dedicated to their service and their country, and they were my heroes.
I’ll remember all my heroes on Memorial Day. Don’t forget to remember yours.